Summer Seasonals on Tap in Beijing and Denver

Photos: Grey Group Beijing, Lost Lakes 2013, (Beijing), photo: Weijun Lin; plan:b, Skyline Cloud 2013, (Denver), photo: Cristobal Palma; June14 Meyer-Grohbrügge&Chermayeff, The Mirror Stages 2013, (Denver), photo: Cristobal Palma; Grey Group Beijing, Lost Lakes 2013, (Beijing), photo: Weijun Lin; Pezo von Ellrichshausen, The Mine Pavilion 2013, (Denver), photo: Cristobal Palma.

Summer Seasonals on Tap in Beijing and Denver:
Lost Lakes and Draft Urbanism at the Biennial of the Americas

Over the summer two cities hosted site-specific installations and exhibitions addressing the temporality and transition of the urban landscape. Cities are constantly undergoing change, adapting to the ebb and flow of population density; and with that, the material organization of buildings, public spaces, highways and roads, and infrastructure spread throughout the surface area supporting them.

Environmental resources are also necessary for the existence of cities. Water is particularly essential, and creative agency Grey Group Beijing introduced comment and dialogue about the issue of environmental pollution and climate change in China to Beijing through a public installation called Lost Lakes. In the past 40 years, more than 240 lakes have disappeared in China. In Beijing’s Sanlitun and 798 neighborhoods, the production and design of medium-sized mirrors cut into curvaceous shapes resembling large rain puddles were installed on site in public pedestrian areas this past July and August. Passers-by could approach the edges of the mirrored glass capturing themselves reflected back, and engage with the conceptual realization of China’s receding and disappearing lakes due to drought, industrialization and and encroaching urban density.
The summer months also provided a reasonably ideal time for the minimalist but largely impactful installation. Lost Lakes debuted towards the middle part of July, just mere weeks after a seasonably high heatwave had seared throughout Shanghai, Beijing and most of southeastern China earlier in the summer. The installation works as well for its portability as Grey Group Beijing’s assembly of installers can carefully pack the mirrored “lakes” to reassemble in other cities throughout China’s Mainland and to Hong Kong.
In Denver, Colorado’s state capitol, the Biennial of the Americas had come to a close after the Labor Day holiday earlier in September which featured a series of public installations around the Mile High City as part of the exhibition Draft Urbanism. The Biennial of the Americas, an International Festival of Ideas, Art & Culture, opened earlier this summer in mid-July featuring a week-long series of symposia, music, and art events around Denver that were up through early September. Unlike many arts biennials, the Biennial of the Americas is a hemispheric-spanning art, intellectual and political event which was initially launched in 2010 recognizing Denver as a city for engagement. Despite that this year’s Biennial was mounted a year later than originally scheduled for 2012, the second Biennial of the Americas held in Denver was anticipated with greater enthusiasm for it’s July opening earlier this summer.
In the past several years, the city has been revitalizing its LoDo (“Lower Downtown”) warehouse neighborhood, Central Platte Valley, Union Station Redevelopment Project serving as a transit and transportation hub, as well as many new mixed residential and commercial projects as part of the 2007 Denver Downtown Area Plan vision. The focus of the Downtown Area Plan was to shore up Colorado’s state capitol as a regional economic, cultural and recreational center in the Mountain West. The Plan’s five core goals are to transform Denver to become a prosperous, walkable, diverse, distinctive and green city. And by extension, Denver’s unique position to attract international artists, architects, designers, political and policy leaders, and urban planners to the city and the Biennial of the Americas meets the city’s urban aspirations in this progressive period of change and redevelopment.
The works included in the Biennial’s Draft Urbanism exhibit offered visitors to view Denver through a different lens and consider specific commercial and architectural elements that are part of the urban fabric. More than thirty artist-designed billboards along highways leading into Denver and peppered around city center neighborhoods were featured in the Billboards & Urban Signage series commissioned for the Biennial. These works contributed comment about neighborhood context and place. Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland produced a billboard featuring the dry sardonic greeting “Welcome to Detroit / The entire world is now Detroit.” The message subverted Denver’s specific locality while reminding residents and city visitors that cities are not always positive fixtures of economic health and vitality, but are prone to ruin and collapse. Here, Coupland bluntly evoked in a few short words about civic vulnerability towards shifts on the American stage in the contemporary global economy.
The four major architectural and installation works included at this summer’s Biennial Draft Urbanism exhibit included The Hotel Rehearsal, The Mirror Stage, Mine Pavilion and Skyline Cloud on view for seven weeks from July through the first part of September. Collectively, participating artists and architects focused on urban planning and design issues relative towards Denver’s current phase of change. The Draft Urbanism exhibit was curated by Carson Chan, a Berlin-based art, architecture and contemporary culture writer who has curated some thirty-plus international contemporary art and architecture exhibitions. The series title also associates “draft” with Denver’s long history and cultural identity with beer. Breweries and taverns are integral to the city’s early economic life and urban development as a mining town in the 19th Century.
Executive curator Chan and co-curators Paul Andersen, Gaspar Libedinsky and Cortney Stell identified Denver’s connection to recent cycles of urban renewal and change from the past 30 years and how the city is currently reinventing itself. Why Draft Urbanism? Chan explains that “the process of urbanism is always in a state of becoming: the city we see today is but a draft of a future version.” In the 1970s, Chan described how several buildings around the city were demolished to accommodate for the establishment of newer buildings but their construction never happened. As a result, the city became checkerboarded with public parking lots. Later, newer hotels were developed on these properties as the city adapted to healthier economic changes emergent in the new Denver of the late 1990s and 2000s.
The Hotel Rehearsal by New York-based architect and artist Alex Schweder explored this connection between Denver’s past efforts towards urban renewal which precipitated the leveling of heritage buildings that later became parking lots. The installation featured a parked Chevrolet E-350 van in a lot near Denver’s central artery along the 16th Street Mall. The van supported a temporary hotel room on a scissor lift complete with a bathroom and shower lofted nearly 20-plus feet above the vehicle. Schweder even spent the night in the clear-walled room which was inspired by the city’s land use for potential hotel property tenants taking occupancy on surface parking lots. The elevated pop-up vantage point from The Hotel Rehearsal was designed to convey a hotel room view above the street.
The Mine Pavilion (2013) designed by Chilean Architect Pezo von Ellrichshausen was possibly the most striking for its iconic profile among the works included in the Draft Urbanism series. Standing 50-feet tall, 50-feet long, and 10-feet wide on a grassy stretch of Speer Boulevard near Larimer Street, the Mine Pavilion is a wooden structure that evoked Denver’s history as a mining town. The free-standing wood structure made from beetle-kill timber and flanked with boulders provided a metaphoric and literal span serving as a pedestrian portal linking the University of Colorado’s Auraria Campus to the city center. Its location also grounded the installation to Denver’s origins when gold prospectors were attracted to the settlement looking for mining work in Larimer.
Both The Mirror Stages and the Skyline Cloud included in the Draft Urbanism series were sited in pedestrian areas allowing for public interaction and engagement. Designed by the Medellín, Colombia-based architecture firm plan:b arqitectos, the Skyline Cloud featured clusters of upturned umbrella-like structures, each containng a central portal to sky and at the same time offered shade over the stretch of Skyline Park. Similarly, The Mirror Stages, produced by June14 Meyer-Grohbrügge&Chermayeff
a Berlin-New York collaborative studio, gathered passers-by in the 16th Street Mall to interact inside cube-shaped butterfly cages housed over pedestrian street furniture and planters. Earlier this summer after the installation’s debut, the butterflies escaped from their cages.
Together, Grey Group Beijing’s Lost Lakes installation and the works included at this summer’s Biennial of the Americas Draft Urbanism exhibition offered innovative ways at looking how engagement can be expressed in the urban context. The Lost Lakes installation, for example, gathered the unseen witness of diminishing resources reflecting back to the city’s inhabitants. And for each city, these installation works collectively offered comment on the past and anticipate what lies ahead. As Curator Carson Chan explained about Draft Urbanism, Denver’s urban future is predicated on the “draft” version of the city, its history, and what it aspires to become.

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